Water repellent hiking shoes

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How does a pair of water-repellent hiking shoes differ from waterproof ones? Why choose a water repellent shoe when you can invest in waterproof hiking shoes? These are just two questions that many hikers face when it comes to choosing their next go-to hiking pair.

Water repellency is a term that is used to describe both water resistance and water repellency. It means that a shoe that’s water repellent is hydrophobic or repels water on contact. Water repellency measures the amount of water pressure that a material can withstand before water permeates.

The water repellency of fabric depends on the angle of impact of liquid. The surface area also determines how well the water is repelled. Scientists consider four things when deciding the water-repellency of fabrics: the chemical compounds, roughness of the surface area, porous qualities of the fabric, and the way substances affect this property. If the material passes all the four classes of the testing method, it can be used for finished products like shoes.

Hiking sets a very different standard in footwear compared with working or casual shoes. Many hikers get advice from other outdoor enthusiasts to get waterproof shoes which they deem more functional when exposed to the element. But, factoring in different considerations, waterproof may not always be the soundest choice. Not all shoes are made equal. Some shoes suit hikers best on certain trails.

Water-repellent hiking shoes often come with durable water repellent (DWR) coating added to fabrics to make them water-resistant or hydrophobic. These are often used in conjunction with waterproof breathable fabrics to keep the feet dry.

Water-repellent hiking shoes 101

best water repellent hiking shoes
Best water repellent hiking shoes - December 2019

If there is one thing that hikers dislike the most, it is the feeling of water squishing around the toes. At first, wet feet can be quite annoying. In the long run, if the foot is drenched or is exposed to damp and unsanitary conditions over a long period, hikers could also suffer the condition called trench foot, a serious condition that can lead to gangrene. A good way to avoid this is to wear shoes that can keep water from seeping in. Footwear options like water-repellent hiking shoes can help hikers face this challenge.

To set the record straight, the materials used for outdoor products like hiking shoes have various degrees of water resistance, but these will eventually leak given there is enough liquid, time, and pressure. The water-repellency of a shoe, for instance, is determined by the kind of material used in it and how well these materials can repel liquid. 

Water repellency can be acquired. Some products are available in the market that promise to keep water out. Most of these products are silicone-based and once sprayed on the shoe upper, water would be kept from seeping in. However, the effectiveness of the formula will not last a long time.

There are also shoes that are made with water resistant-compounds, like the DWR, that help keep water from seeping through during drizzle or when walking over damp areas. The permanent coating is already part of the shoe’s upper, so sprays and other separate products are no longer needed. But while it is permanent, the coating will not last forever. The coating technology will also suffer wear and tear together with the upper.  Hikers can expect their go-to water-repellent hiking shoes to eventually lose its water-repellency properties after years of use.

As DWR is commonly used in conjunction with waterproof breathable fabrics, the breathability of the garment is reduced. A process called “wetting out” is done so water will not soak through the garment. Eventually, the DWR will wear off making retreatment a necessity if hikers want to continue using the shoe for an extended period. Hikers can turn to applying a solution of a chemical into the surface of the shoes by spraying or dipping to regain repellency.

A more recent development is applying in the vapor phase using chemical vapor deposition (CVD). This new process has several advantages like eliminating the use of hazardous and environmentally harmful solvents commonly used in the application process since fewer chemicals are used. Also a worthy benefit: the thin waterproof layer has less effect on the look and feel of the fabric.  

The difference between a waterproof and water-repellent hiking shoe

The words water-repellent, water-resistant, and waterproof are often interchanged. Many people often confuse these for each other, not able to tell the difference between the features, and concluding that these all suggest water impenetrability. But the truth is, waterproof, water-repellent, and water-resistant indicate different degrees of water protection.

Water resistance means that fabric is designed to resist contact by light water. This means that the material is not designed to withstand heavy exposure to the element. There is a natural threshold of water pressure that the fabric can withstand–about 1,500 mm or more according to the Hydrostatic Head Test. Shoes with this property can withstand a particular water pressure threshold before these get soaked in water.

Waterproofness in waterproof hiking shoes is considered as the highest level of protection from water. Companies that design waterproof products target water-resistant features and enhance these to increase the amount of water that the fabric repels.  They are also seamless to prevent water seepage. 

Waterproof breathable fabrics have been introduced by companies like Gore-Tex and in the recent few years, hiking shoes with this material abound the market. While technology allows the creation of thinner layers to cover shoe uppers, high-performance polyurethane and polyester membranes still make up most outdoor products footwear on the market.

Coated fabrics are very waterproof but lack breathability compared with membrane laminates. The fabrics are less expensive and improve with the direction that manufacturers find in making coatings thinner and more porous. With more chemical improvements, it is expected that breathability issues will eventually be addressed.

On the other hand, water-repellent hiking shoes can repel water on contact at a certain angle and surface area. This property is acquired by coating the waterproof breathable fabric with DWR coating.

Benefits of wearing water-repellent hiking shoes for men and women

The right footwear plays a great role in making outdoor activities enjoyable. Water-repellent hiking shoes are ideal for when hikers anticipate light rain or snow. Weatherproof footwear also come in handy for trails with erratic weather.

The most obvious benefit of taking a pair of water-repellent hiking shoes on a trip is the weather protection that the pair can offer. Hikers can have the assurance that even if they meet weather disturbances, they will not end up with a shoe to dry. Investing in this kind of footwear also assures that their trips will not be spoiled because of wet and soggy footwear.

An edge that water-repellent hiking shoes have over waterproof models is breathability. Waterproof pairs have membranes covering the shoe upper and while this property certainly keeps water from seeping through, this also locks moisture in, which makes trips to hot areas even more unbearable. On the other hand, this membrane isn’t present on water-repellent ones.

There is a notion that waterproof hiking boots and shoes are better investments than water-repellent hiking shoes. However, hikers also have to consider the environment that they will be hiking in as their footwear can also affect their performance. For instance, when hiking in a humid or damp environment, getting a breathable and water-repellent shoe is a better choice than a completely waterproof one.

A pair of water-repellent hiking shoes offer more versatility than waterproof shoes because they are mostly made of leather, treated canvas, vinyl, and nylon. These materials, when coated with water-repellent compounds provide enough protection against water while keeping the feet cool and dry.

Men's and women's water-repellent hiking shoes questions and answers

How do manufacturers determine the waterproofness of footwear?

Hikers may differentiate water-repellent hiking shoes from waterproof ones based on the labels in their tags. During the manufacturing phase though, scientific process and standard play great roles in coming up with the coating technology that makes footwear weatherproof.

Manufacturers describe the waterproof breathability of fabrics in two numbers. The first number is in millimeters and measures the waterproofness of fabric. For instance, a fabric or coating that bears a 10k or 10,000 mm of fabric can accommodate up to 10,000 mm or 32.8 feet of liquid in a 1”x1” tube before the liquid leaks through. Fabrics with greater number are more repellent.

The second number measures the breathability of the fabric which is normally expressed in the number of grams of water vapor that can pass through a square meter of the fabric from the inside to the outside in a span of 24 hours. For instance, a 20k or 20,000-gram fabric passes 20,000 grams of water vapor per square meter in the whole day period.  Fabrics graded with higher numbers are more breathable.

Waterproof ratings are becoming more standardized but then different laboratories may test or report materials differently thereby affecting the results even if they use the same roll of fabric or material. It helps to consider the laboratory that has conducted the test and to remain objective about the shoes’ water-repellent property.

Are water-repellent hiking shoes better than waterproof models?

Choosing between water-repellent hiking shoes and waterproof models depend largely on the preference of the individual. Consider the environment where you will be hiking in. For areas that rarely experience rain, the water-repellent version may provide just enough protection and breathability.

Some people may want a pair that they can use for longer trips to colder regions, so it is safer to buy a waterproof model. Those who like trekking in more humid places can stick with more breathable options.

Will hikers spend more for water-repellent hiking shoes?

The more technologies incorporated in a shoe, the heftier the price tag will be. Generally, the coated water protection is less expensive than the waterproofing membrane. Taking both technology and design into consideration, water-repellent hiking shoes are less expensive than waterproof models.

What are the benefits of using water-repellent hiking shoes?

Water-repellent hiking shoes are not like waterproof footwear in terms of the kind of material that keeps water out. Unlike a membrane that is used in waterproof shoes and boots, a hydrophobic coating keeps the water out in water-repellent hiking shoes.

The biggest edge of water-repellent hiking shoes from waterproof models is that it protects without a membrane blocking air in and out, the feet feels fresher. Hikers are liberated from worries of smelly feet. Breathability is as good as a traditional upper even if there is improved water protection. It is also worth noting that water-repellent hiking shoes are lighter than waterproof models.

How would shoppers identify water-repellent hiking shoes?

Shoes are made of different materials, and all it takes is a keen eye to pick a pair of water-repellent hiking shoes. There are many hydrophobic upper materials used for shoes. The key is to scan through the product information. Apart from the tag, asking for the assistance of shoe store attendants also lead to the best pair.

Are water-repellent hiking shoes easy to find?

Water-repellent hiking shoes are not as abundant as waterproof shoes, but this does not mean that the options are very limited. Major shoe brands carry this type of shoe. When shopping, store assistants will be glad to refer pairs with water-repellent hiking shoes that will suit the hiker’s needs.

Are water-repellent coatings for re-treatment effective?

Water-repellent hiking shoes are likely factory-treated with a DWR finish, so they require no treatment on the first few months of use. With continued use, it is expected that the coating will also wear off. You may notice after some time that water gets absorbed into the outer layer of the boots. In this case, water-repellent hiking shoes may be re-treated.

But of course, once the original DWR finish of the water-repellent hiking shoes wears off, the shoe will no longer be as water-repellent as one could wish no matter how many re-treatments are done.